August 14, 2014 12:00 am JST

The British way of winning

DAISUKE YAMAGUCHI, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Japan's sporting officials have some decisions to make on how, exactly, they will go about training athletes for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Looking to maximize home field advantage, they are thinking about adopting a strategy that proved quite successful for the U.K. when London hosted the games two years ago.

     Traditionally, the Japanese Olympic Committee shoulders the primary responsibility for training. The JOC distributes public funds to the national federations of various sports.

     The British approach, in contrast, is government-led. It is also strictly merit-based, with funds allocated only to sports in which athletes are likely to bag medals.

     Based on this, Japanese lawmakers are discussing whether to set up a new incorporated administrative agency for sports, a government entity that would have the authority to decide which federations get funding and how much. This idea was presented by a panel of experts.

     The U.K. began reforming its athlete training system after it won only one gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The following year, the country established a public organization called UK Sport. This entity is independent from the British Olympic Association and has full authority to allocate training funds for top athletes. The money comes from National Lottery proceeds and government subsidies.

     UK Sport doled out a total of 264 million pounds ($443 million) over the four years up to the London Olympics. It invested far more in events in which British athletes were expected to succeed. The outlay for rowing, the top recipient, was 23 times the amount for table tennis, the smallest recipient.

     The results speak for themselves: The U.K. won 29 golds, the third-most after the U.S. and China.

All business

After the London Games, the U.K. sought to focus its funding even further. UK Sport monitors not only actual Olympic performance but also training plans, progress in nurturing young athletes and federation governance.

     In annual reviews of national federations, rowing, boxing, cycling and other sports with golden prospects received sharp increases in funding. Seven sports in which the nation was weak, including basketball, handball and wrestling, had their allocations abolished. It was decided that British athletes have little shot at winning hardware in these events at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, nor in Tokyo four years later.

     Earlier this year, UK Sport poached some personnel from a Dutch company that specializes in collecting and analyzing sports data. The agency aims to evaluate federations based on objective statistical analysis of the likelihood of winning medals.

     Japan sees UK Sport as a model because the organization's methods would "help national federations improve their organizational and management capabilities," said Takahiro Waku, a director at the Japan Sport Council.

     Yet not everyone believes the British way is the right way for Japan. Some argue the strategy of putting medals above everything forsakes the weak.

     "It's different from the way we have been conducting training," said Kiichiro Matsumaru, a member of the JOC's executive board. Naturally, the U.K. federations that have had their funding cut off are none too happy, and Matsumaru suggested the federations fear the London Olympics' legacy of success may not last.

     The debate in Japan is to wrap up by autumn. It comes down to this: If a high medal count is the primary objective, then the British method may well be the most effective. Those discussing the matter need to decide whether there are other worthy goals for the Tokyo Olympics, and what direction they want Japanese sports to take after the crowds go home.